Twitter accepted a buyout offer from Tesla and SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk, leading to a day of frantic speculation over one question: how is Musk going to change Twitter? Musk’s stated plans are a series of features and principles that he may or may not take seriously, but demonstrate a series of potentially conflicting goals and changes whose mechanics have been sketched very little, if at all.
Musk named his priorities in a press release, echoing previous statements you have made about possible changes. “Freedom of expression is the foundation of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital public square where issues vital to the future of humanity are debated,” she said. “I also want Twitter to be better than ever by improving the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating spam bots, and authenticating all humans.”
In other words, he has four main ideas for unlocking Twitter’s potential, and each of them is a huge can of worms. Let’s break them down one at a time.
Freedom of expression
Online speech is a minefield, and if Musk really intends to have a minimally moderated Twitter around the world, he could expect big fights in countries that restrict things like hate speech and misinformation. But Musk’s view on free speech he doesn’t seem too worried about it. In a TED interview, he indicated that Twitter should “come in line with the laws of the country,” suggesting that it could continue practices like regional blocking of certain content and follow rules like India’s social media regulations.
Musk has a lot more wiggle room to change Twitter’s policies on what kind of content is banned, of course, and when users are suspended. He has indicated that he would prefer to err on the side of “wait times” and leave limit content online. Many have speculated that this would bring former President Donald Trump back on the platform, which is not an unreasonable prediction, but Musk has not said anything about it publicly. (Trump has also claimed that he would not return.)
There are some excellent summaries of how Musk might decide to change Twitter’s policies and the dangers he would face, including from the atlantic charlie warzel Y by TechDirt Mike Masnick. But, at this point, we don’t know much about how Musk would concretely change Twitter’s speech policies. He would likely urge moderators to issue fewer bans and potentially leave questionable content. But virtually every site that claims to have a “free speech” banner ends up banning something that makes it deeply distasteful to users, advertisers, or the site owners themselves, so it’s premature to say how far their commitment will go.
Open source algorithms
One of Musk’s areas of concern is recommendation algorithms that amplify or demote tweets and accounts in potentially biased ways. He has proposed posting Twitter’s algorithmic ranking systems on Github for people to review and comment on publicly, making something like the “top tweets” ranking system more theoretically readable.
musk has described how to do the algorithm “open source”, but you haven’t outlined any specific plans to follow the requirements of an open source license, so you could say it in a more informal sense. He could also be describing something that works within Twitter’s core product or via the independent but Twitter-funded open source Bluesky project, which would have different implications for the main Twitter app.
Transparency is generally welcome, and former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has also suggested that users choose between different recommendation systems. That said, many web platforms (including Google and Reddit) don’t disclose precisely how their systems work because that would give spammers and other bad actors a guide to manipulating the system. Twitter’s algorithm will also not explain how any dice tweet was prioritized unless Twitter releases a lot of supporting data, nor would it necessarily illuminate the logic behind any human moderation that comes across it. And it would be incredibly vulnerable to people who want to make bad faith claims by taking bits of it out of context, deliberately misrepresenting them, or planting conspiracy theories about them.
Beyond that, Musk hasn’t outlined how he would integrate suggestions made by other developers or readers, which, again, would likely involve a batch of spammers, in the Twitter algorithm. Maybe you could go the way Dorsey suggested and let people fork their own versions of Twitter’s recommendation system, making it a real open source system? Perhaps you could set up a Facebook Oversight Board-style committee that would approve the suggested changes? We won’t know for a while.
Spam and scam bots
Musk has indicated that “spam and scam bots” and “bot armies” are Twitter’s new Public Enemy No. 1. That makes sense, since Musk is a perennial topic of crypto impersonators scammers. However, how you would control this is an open question. Unlike speech maximalism, there is no big philosophical difference here: nobody likes spambots! twitter already purge fake accounts and has banned certain features, such as tweeting simultaneously from multiple accounts, which facilitate bot spam. So how would Musk fare better?
Well, Musk might have some sort of hitherto unannounced anti-spam tool in the works, though there’s no indication he’s spent more time thinking about this than Twitter’s own engineers. (Again: Twitter already has plenty of incentive to police spam!) Or Musk could simply decide to make a much bigger mistake by blocking non-malicious automated account activity, blocking access to the Twitter API, or downgrading content from humans who they act too much like robots
Unfortunately, that goal would likely conflict with his drive for free speech and transparency. As mentioned above, publishing the inner workings of Twitter’s amplification system would also give spammers more tools to work with. And a strict crackdown on automation could block bots that perform interesting and valuable services on Twitter, like Big Tech Alertwhich keeps track of who the big players in Silicon Valley (including Musk) follow and unfollow, or Editing by TheGrayLadythat illuminates how The New York Times adjust your headlines and copy over time. Bots are an old and beloved part of Twitter, and separating a good bot from a bad one may be harder than Musk thinks.
Authenticate all humans?
The strangest and possibly most disruptive part of Musk’s Twitter speech is found in his last three words: “authenticate all humans.” musk done a similar comment on Twitter before purchase, phrasing it as “authenticating all real humans,” following a commitment to defeating bots. However, he has not been specific about the purpose of this authentication, or how it would be carried out.
“Authentication” could potentially mean a couple of different things here. It could refer to people having to pass some sort of captcha-style test “am I human?” to post, although, as with spambot bans, if there was an easy way to do this without affecting bona fide users, Twitter would probably do it. has already done it. It could also mean asking people to present identification showing that they are specific humans, either to receive a check mark (something Musk has previously suggested) or to operate on the service at all.
Twitter has a long-standing commitment to allowing anonymous or pseudonymous speech, even presentation of legal briefs arguing its benefits. Asking users to anonymize themselves significantly undermines that commitment. Even if a name is not revealed to other users, the collection of information about real identities offers a large amount of information for governments to request, and is vulnerable to attacks or security flaws. “There are no easy ways to request verification without wreaking havoc on some users and on freedom of expression.” the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted yesterday.
Musk likes to throw out weird ideas as a provocation, so his remarks yesterday may not end up reflecting where the platform is headed. However, if Twitter’s past moderation challenges are any indication, each change will open up a whole new set of questions to answer. The open question is how interested Musk is in handling the fallout.